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A conversation with Gil Peled, eco-architect

by simone December 07 2008
InterviewEnvironment

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Born in Jerusalem, environmentally aware architect Gil Peled was somewhat of a gypsy as a child, following his parents, who worked in the Foreign Service, to Germany, Austria and back. After completing his army service, Gil studied architecture in Scotland, in keeping with his cross-cultural roots. Today, Gil works as an eco-architect, and is the founder of Eco-Challenges: Sustainable Architecture and Consultancy. Perhaps his most famous project is his own apartment building, near downtown Jerusalem, which he converted into the city's first Eco-Housing Project, turning the old building green from the top on down. Gil first came on Jerusalemite's radar when we read about him on Israel's eco-blog, Green Prophet. We were eager to hear more about his ambitious project that is helping make Jerusalem a "greener" city.

What is eco-housing and eco-architecture exactly, and how did you come to be interested in the concept? The emphasis in eco-housing and eco-architecture is on ecology and looking at things in a holistic manner. It deals with the building in relation to its surroundings and looks at the materials required for a building's construction and operation. A lot of energy and resources go into a building - there are carbon emissions from heating and cooling; there's building waste and toxic materials. The idea with eco-housing is to take all these resources which have been put into the building and reuse them or limit the initial resource use. In some parts of the world, they are now making not only eco-friendly buildings, but eco-enhancing buildings.

I guess I became interested in eco-architecture because I was brought up in so many dRoses climbing up the Eco-wallifferent places, which made me aware of, and sensitive to, the environment – both socially and physically. Now green is a way of life for me. I've been involved with the Gazelle Valley initiative and many other environmental initiatives such as community gardens and the preservation of heritage sites.

My first real architecture project, which I did while I was still a student, was an eco-architecture project, and then I began to specialize in it. My final project was an eco-architecture project as well, but by that time, eco-architecture was a part of me.

When I came back from Scotland, I needed surgery and had to take a few years off, so I decided to implement what I'd learned and transfer an existing building into an eco-building, the Eco-Housing Pilot Project. This was a big challenge because older buildings were not designed with the environment in mind.

How do you reconcile Jerusalem's older architecture with newer eco-friendly practices and standards? Why is what you're doing better than simply building new housing? The older buildings are already here, and demolishing a building is also an environmental problem – there's building waste, dust, relocation of inhabitants - so the idea is to prolong the life cycle of older buildings instead of just building new ones.

For example, the Eco-Housing Pilot Project building is 50 years old. When we began the project, it was very run-down, and had we not intervened, it would have slowly decayed and would probably have ended up being demolished in another 10 years. So we took a problem and turned it into a solution.

Of course, it's harder to tackle existing architecture than to build a new eco-friendly building from scratch, but it is possible, feasible, affordable and sustainable. We've prolonged this particular building's life by about 50 years. We took an old structure and adapted it to new demands – mostly in the form of energy waste and water waste. Energy is the most significant aspect because it's the most costly in terms of both operation and efficiency. We improved the building's insulation, converted the water boilers to solar panels, switched over to energy-efficient light bulbs and began a compost project. Also, the building's occupants are now more aware of how to save energy and water and reduce waste.

We have to live in a green way. It's trendy now, but we should have adopted many of these green measure years ago.  

Your pilot project has been around since 2002, long before green was really fashionable. Who are the residents that live in your pilot building, and how did you manage to convince them to take the step towards eco-living? The people living here are your typical apartment dwellers. It's a multi-generational residency, we have pensioners and students, young families and singles, secular and religious. We had to bring the people together and get them all to decide to change the building into a green building. The biggest challenge was with the renters (about half the building) who don't want to deal with any building issues - they just want to pay their landlord and get on with their lives. Since the project started in 2002, we've gone through at least two rounds of renters.

So, the process was very difficult and very challenging, but without the participation of everyone in the building, it wouldn't have happened. We had a lot of meetings, and it took a while to convince everyone - especially because we allGreen Plaque had to pay out of our pockets to change it over, and we all had to stay involved in keeping it green. At first, I just bounced ideas off the other residents and tried to see if there was any interest, and slowly the project evolved.

At this point, we've also become a community, a green community, but when we started it was during the second intifada, which wasn't a very favorable time to begin a project. We found that discussing the environment and what we can do to help it was a healing process which brought the building's residents together in a difficult time, when people normally withdraw even further into themselves. Today, the whole building knows each other, visits each other and are really connected.

Is your project the only project of its type in Jerusalem? What is holding it back from becoming bigger? What kind of support – if any - have you received from city hall? Do you expect anything to change now that our new mayor has put making a greener Jerusalem high on his agenda? Not only are we the only project of its type in Jerusalem, we're the first in all of Israel. Now people are coming here to learn from us. Gideon Ezra, the Minister of Environment, has been here, as have other officials from the Ministries of Environment, Housing and Infrastructure. Every week we have people come to visit the building, which has generated a lot of interest both in Israel and abroad. We've presented the idea behind the building in Japan, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

We've become a stepping-stone [in the eco-reclamation of older buildings]. When I began the Eco-Housing Pilot Project, no-one was interested in existing buildings - they just wanted to build new buildings. But I've been able to raise awareness. I've knocked on everyone's door – NGOs, private corporations, government ministries, municipalities and now the idea is gaining interest.

Funding is the main thing holding it back. If we had funding, we could have completely finished the pilot project long ago – though we recently won a prize that's helping us, and we receive small grants from green organizations from time to time. The other main obstacle is legislation, or should I say regulations. Right now we're working on converting old water boilers into solar-paneled heaters –we want to install solar panels on the roofs of older buildings just like they're installed on new buildings, but there are building permits to deal with and other regulations like that.

So far we have received no support from the municipality, although over the years people there have become more environmentally aware. I would like to hope that this will change [under Barkat]. Jerusalem is in great need of a mayor who puts a greener Jerusalem high on his agenda. The municipality's support is crucial.

One might not think of Jerusalem as a hotbed for environmental concerns, yet green activists managed to stop the controversial Safdie plan from moving forward, and Jerusalem is the only city in the country with its own Green Map. Are Jerusalem's green activists leading the charge for environmentalism in Israel? I'd have to say yes. Public participation in city planning, community gardens and other green initiatives are all big in Jerusalem. It's interesting, because now that you point it out, it's true. Many people are actually coming to Jerusalem to learn how to sustain a building, so I guess Jerusalem's green activists are leading the charge.

You know they say "Mitzion Tetze Torah – From Zion comes forth Torah," and that could apply to the environment as well, from Jerusalem will come forth the green, eco-Israel.

Is there anything specific about Jerusalem (climate, history, lifestyle of its residents) that necessitates certain sensitivities that inform your work? Jerusalem's demographic – it's a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-faith community – informs my work. It's a very diverse community, which on the one hand makes it rich, but it also makes it more challenging to do green initiatives, because everyone has a different perspective of what the city needs. The environment could be a uniting force in the city, because Jerusalem's ecological destiny affects everybody.

Jerusalem is also the holy city and perhaps the fact that we all believe in its holiness will encourage us to strive to make it a better place.

Photo of Gil Peled (top) and the climbing roses (middle) courtesy of Gil Peled, photo of the Housing Project plaque-age courtesy of Michael Green.

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